Changing face of Berlin's cultural landscape



I was sad to read today that parts of the East Side Gallery in Berlin have finally been taken down in a pre-dawn operation, despite months of debate, protests and a petition with more than 80,000 signatures. And all because a private developer has been given permission to build a new block of flats along the banks of the River Spree where the 1.3 kilometre gallery runs.


The East Side Gallery is one of the few remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, most of which was dismantled following its fall on 9 November 1989. I was 13 then and distinctly remember the late BBC journalist Brian Hanrahan reporting from Berlin as it came down. Today, the wall’s outline has been largely replaced with a simple double row of bricks built into roads and pavements around the city.


Small sections do remain, however. One has been preserved as a memorial on the corner between Bernauer Strasse and Ackerstrasse. But the East Side Gallery is very special. In the days immediately after the wall came down, international artists flocked to the city to paint over the heavy grey concrete surfaces with bright, often irreverent, images. One of the most famous is of the Soviet and East German leaders kissing. This art was all the more exciting since graffiti on the eastern side of the wall had been illegal.


Twenty years on, the gallery remains a key tourist spot in east Berlin and the artists have been invited back a couple of times to top up their artwork, since it is completely exposed to the elements. The #orchidwhisperer and I were lucky enough to visit last Spring. It’s an incredible place that somehow blends deep revulsion with irresistible hope, beautifully demonstrating the scale of cruelty and beauty of which our species is capable.


Apparently the private developer has told Germany’s Bild newspaper that the sections will be replaced once construction is complete. However, the anger that the decision to develop has unleashed highlights the tricky position that Berlin finds itself in.


Since the wall came down, the eastern half of the city has earned a reputation for maintaining a cool, grungy feel that is at delicious odds with the western half, with its sweeping parks and lovely but could-be-any-European-city architecture. It’s why people go to Berlin.


But a city is a living thing that grows and changes. Berlin is still littered with gaps left by the bombing campaign of the Second World War, much like London throughout the 1950s and 60s. And as Germany’s economy has grown (at least before the euro crisis) so, too, has the desire to spruce the place up. Last year, the iconic Tacheles art squat – another place we were able to visit – was shut down after decades of legal wrangling. It, too, has fallen foul of the city’s need to move on.


It’s hard to argue with this desire to improve, but the trouble is, such investment and property development risks stripping away the very essence that made Berlin interesting in the first place.


On which note, I leave you with some of the photos I took last year in Berlin.




The Berlin Wall is marked by a row of double bricks all the way round the city





The East Side Gallery






More images from the gallery






Tacheles art squat




Photography © Lisa Davison